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Canadian home sales register biggest monthly decline in nearly 5 years

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Jun 16th, 2017

A sign advertises a new home for sale in Carleton Place, Ont., on March 17, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Home sales across the country dropped sharply last month, driven by a plunge in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) after the Ontario government imposed a tax on foreign buyers aimed at cooling the red-hot market.

The number of residential properties sold nationwide fell by 6.2 per cent in May compared to April, the largest month-to-month decline in nearly five years, the Canadian Real Estate Association said Thursday. The industry group, which represents real estate agents, brokers and salespeople in Canada, noted sales were down a whopping 25.3 per cent month-over-month in the GTA.

The data showed that while real estate may be local, the impact of changes in a market the size of Toronto can have a sweeping effect nationally.

“This is the first full month of results since changes to Ontario housing policy made in late April. They provide clear evidence that the changes have resulted in more balanced housing markets throughout the Greater Golden Horseshoe region,” CREA chief economist Gregory Klump said in a statement.

“For housing markets in the region, May sales activity was down most in the GTA and Oakville. This suggests the changes have squelched speculative home purchases.”

The Ontario government introduced more than a dozen measures, including a 15-per-cent tax on foreign buyers, aimed at stabilizing Toronto’s blistering housing market. Prices have spiralled out of reach for many potential homebuyers both in and on the outskirts of the city.

Sal Guatieri, a senior economist with BMO Capital Markets, said while the rules have had an effect, they merely brought back “some semblance of normalcy after a manic winter” that will likely be short-lived.

“Given the strong economic, demographic and financial backdrop, don’t expect the GTA market to stay down for the count,” Guatieri said in a note to clients.

“Policy tinkering will do little to cool demand on a sustained basis. Time to take out the heavy artillery: higher interest rates. The ball is now firmly in the Bank of Canada’s court.”

The central bank has dropped hints that the era of historically low interest rates may be coming to an end. Just this week, governor Stephen Poloz said cuts to the benchmark rate have “done their job” as the economy builds momentum, a statement that some market watchers have interpreted as a sign that a hike could be six to 12 months away.

In the closely watched Vancouver market, sales were up by 22.8 per cent month-over-month. There are concerns that the city may be returning to bubble territory less than a year after the British Columbia government instituted a tax on foreign buyers of properties in the Vancouver area.

Nationally, the average price for all homes sold last month was $530,304, pulled up by Toronto and Vancouver, where it was $863,910 and $1,110,376, respectively.

Trump to announce plan to stop cash flow to Cuban military


President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on June 12, 2017, during a ceremony honoring the 2016 NCAA Football National Champions Clemson University Tigers. AP PHOTO/Susan Walsh
Stopping short of a complete turnabout, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a revised Cuba policy aimed at stopping the flow of U.S. cash to the country’s military and security services while maintaining diplomatic relations and allowing U.S. airlines and cruise ships to continue service to the island.

In a speech Friday at a Miami theatre associated with Cuban exiles, Trump will cast the policy moves as fulfilment of a promise he made during last year’s presidential campaign to reverse then-President Barack Obama’s diplomatic re-engagement with the island after decades of estrangement.

Senior White House officials who briefed reporters Thursday on the coming announcement said Obama’s overtures had enriched Cuba’s military while repression increased on the island. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy before Trump announces it, despite the president’s regular criticism of the use of anonymous sources.

The moves to be announced by Trump are only a partial reversal of Obama’s policies, however. And they will saddle the U.S. government with the complicated task of policing U.S. travel to Cuba to make sure there are no transactions with the military-linked conglomerate that runs much of the Cuban economy.

By restricting individual U.S. travel to Cuba, the new policy also risks cutting off a major source of income for Cuba’s private business sector, which the policy is meant to support.

Under the expected changes, the U.S. will ban American financial transactions with the dozens of enterprises run by the military-linked corporation GAESA, which operates dozens of hotels, tour buses, restaurants and other facilities.

Most U.S. travellers to Cuba will again be required to visit the island as part of organized tour groups run by American companies. The rules also require a daylong schedule of activities designed to expose the travellers to ordinary Cubans. But because Cuban rules requires tour groups to have government guides and use state-run tour buses, the requirement has given the Cuban government near-total control of travellers’ itineraries and funneled much of their spending to state enterprises.

Obama eliminated the tour requirement, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to book solo trips and spend their money with individual bed-and-breakfast owners, restaurants and taxi drivers.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which reopened in August 2015, will remain as a full-fledged diplomatic outpost. Trump isn’t overturning Obama’s decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed most Cuban migrants who made it onto U.S. soil to stay and eventually become legal permanent residents.

Also not expected are any changes to U.S. regulations governing what items Americans can bring back from Cuba, including the rum and cigars produced by state-run enterprises.

More details about the changes are expected to be released Friday, when the new policy is set to take effect. But none of the changes will become effective until the Treasury Department issues new regulations, which could take months. That means that any U.S. traveller currently booked on a flight to Cuba in the next few weeks, or even months, could go ahead and make the trip.

Critics said the changes would only hurt everyday Cubans who work in the private sector and depend on American visitors to help provide for their families. Supporters expressed appreciation for Trump’s emphasis on human rights in Cuba.

Obama announced in December 2014 that he and Cuban leader Raul Castro were restoring diplomatic ties between their countries, arguing that the policy the U.S. had pursued for decades had failed to bring about change and that it was time to try a new approach.

The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro’s revolution. It spent subsequent decades trying to either overthrow the Cuban government or isolate the island, including toughening an economic embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The embargo remains in place and unchanged by Trump’s policy. Only the U.S. Congress can lift the embargo, and lawmakers, especially those of Cuban heritage, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have shown no interest in doing so.

The son of a Cuban immigrant, Rubio opposed Obama’s re-engagement with Cuba, saying Obama was making concessions to an “odious regime.”

Trump aides said Thursday that Rubio was “very helpful” to the administration as it spent months reviewing the policy. The senator, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, was expected to travel with the president aboard Air Force One and appear with him at Friday’s announcement.

The change in the U.S. posture toward Cuba under Trump marks the latest policy about-face by the president.

While campaigning last year in Miami, which is home to a large Cuban-American population, Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba unless it met certain “demands,” including granting Cubans religious and political freedom, and releasing all political prisoners. He said he would “stand with the Cuban people in their fight against communist oppression,” and went on to win about half the Cuban vote in Florida in the presidential election.

Trump had previously said he supported restoring diplomatic relations but wished the U.S. had negotiated a better deal.

For the announcement, the White House chose to have Trump speak at the Manuel Artime Theate in Miami. The theatre is named for an exile leader of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ association that endorsed Trump last October.

Weissenstein reported from Havana.

Russia claims it has killed ISIS leader al-Baghdadi


This file image made from video posted on a militant website on July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. AP Photo/Militant video
Russia claimed Friday it killed the leader of ISIS in an airstrike targeting a meeting of its leaders just outside the group’s de facto capital in Syria.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian strike in late May along with other senior group commanders.

There had been previous reports of al-Baghdadi being killed but they did not turn out to be true. The ISIS leader last released an audio on Nov. 3, urging his followers to keep up the fight for Mosul as they defend the city against a major offensive that began weeks earlier.

The spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition said in a statement Friday he could not confirm the Russian claim.

The report of al-Baghdadi’s death comes as ISIS suffers major setbacks in which they have lost wide areas of territory and both of their strongholds – Mosul in Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa. Both are under attack by various groups who are fighting under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

U.S. officials and Syrian activists say many commanders have fled Mosul and Raqqa in recent months for Mayadeen, a remote town in the heart of Syria’s ISIS-controlled, Euphrates River valley near the Iraqi border.

The claim of al-Baghdadi’s possible demise also comes nearly three years to the day after he declared himself the leader of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, from a historic mosque in Mosul.

If confirmed, it would mark a major military success for Russia, which has conducted a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad since September 2015.

The Defence Ministry said the air raid on May 28 that targeted an ISIS meeting held on the southern outskirts of Raqqa in Syria also killed about 30 mid-level militant leaders and about 300 other fighters.

The ministry said the ISIS leaders were gathered to discuss the group’s withdrawal from Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital. It said the military began planning the hit after getting word that the group’s leadership was to meet in order to plan ISIS’s exit to the south.

The Russian military sent drones to monitor the area and then dispatched a group of Su-34 bombers and Su-35 fighter jets to hit the ISIS gathering.

“According to the information that is being verified through various channels, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also attended the meeting and was killed in the airstrike,” the military said in a statement.

The Defence Ministry added that it had warned the U.S. of the coming strike.

Syrian opposition activists reported airstrikes on May 28 south of Raqqa that killed more than a dozen people.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s war, said airstrikes on the road linked the villages of Ratla and Kasrat killed 18 people while the activist-operated Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said 17 civilians were killed in the airstrike on buses carrying civilians.

The Observatory said the dead included 10 ISIS members. It did not elaborate at the time.

The Russian ministry said that among other militant leaders killed in the raid were ISIS leaders Abu al-Khadji al-Mysri, Ibrahim al-Naef al-Khadj and Suleiman al-Shauah.

Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June 2014 days after his fighters captured Mosul, the largest city they ever held. The group has since horrified the world with its atrocities in areas they held as well as attacks they claimed around the world that killed hundreds.

Al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre for a man identified as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to his death or capture.

Alexei Pushkov, the head of the committee for information policies at the upper house of the Russian parliament tweeted that “if confirmed, al-Baghdadi’s death will be a powerful blow to ISIS. It has been retreating on all fronts, and the death of its leader will accelerate its demise.”

Dodge minivans recalled; air bag can inflate unexpectedly

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Thursday, Jun 15th, 2017

A row of new Dodge Ram pickup trucks are shown at a dealership in Mesa, Ariz., on May 15, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt York
Fiat Chrysler is recalling 297,000 minivans in the U.S. and Canada because the driver’s front air bag can inflate unexpectedly.

The recall covers Dodge Grand Caravans from 2011 and 2012. The company says eight people have suffered minor injuries from the problem, but no crashes have been reported.

Fiat Chrysler says the air bag wiring can chafe against steering wheel trim, causing a short circuit. Drivers could see an air bag warning light, the windshield wipers may turn on unexpectedly or the speed control may not work.

Dealers will inspect wiring and replace it if needed. They’ll also install a protective covering.

Owners will be notified by mail starting July 28.

The similar Chrysler Town & Country minivan is not affected. FCA says it has different steering wheel trim.

Customers could pay surcharge when using certain credit cards

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Thursday, Jun 15th, 2017

Consumer credit cards are displayed THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Elise Amendola
Canadian merchants may soon start charging customers extra to pay with certain credit cards thanks to a settlement agreement in a class action suit.

The suit, which was filed in 2011, alleges that Visa and MasterCard rules forced merchants to accept all their credit cards, even ones that charged retailers higher fees. Those rules did not allow merchants to add a surcharge for customers who use these premium cards.

In 2013, a regular VISA card, for example, charged merchants a 1.64 per cent fee, while a premium one charged 2.13 per cent, according to rates compiled by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. That same year a regular MasterCard, for example, charged 1.69 per cent, while a premium one charged 2.39 per cent. The rates were based on preferred total merchant rates for CFIB members with Chase Paymentech.

In 2014, after discussions with the federal government, Visa and MasterCard agreed to voluntarily reduce the fees for five years.

Both companies released statements saying they do not admit to any wrongdoing in the class action, but entered into a settlement agreement earlier this week.

Visa and MasterCard agreed to pay $19.5 million each and allow Canadian merchants to add surcharge fees on credit card payments. The revised rules will include a surcharge cap.

Visa said in a statement that the new rules will come into effect 1.5 years after provincial courts in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec approve the settlement.

The CFIB praised the decision, saying it’s important for merchants to have the power to add a surcharge when customers pay with premium credit cards. The CFIB added it does not expect smaller merchants to widely use this new power.

Police Services Board to debate cops in schools program on Thursday

FAIZA AMIN | posted Thursday, Jun 15th, 2017


The future of a controversial Toronto Police program could be decided at a meeting on Thursday.

The Toronto Police Services board is set to consider a motion to suspend the School Resource Officer program, an initiative that has been met with harsh criticism from activists in Toronto’s black community

“Some people may feel safe and comfortable with the police, but our black, indigenous and undocumented students are telling us a lot of really horrible stories about their interactions with the Toronto Police and their schools,” said anti-racism and activist Desmond Cole.

The program sees uniformed police officers placed in schools, with the TPS objective of improving safety, and the relationships between students and police.

Cole spoke out against the SRO program at the police board meeting last month where the vote was deferred to June, saying the officers are intimidating students and it’s time that the program is suspended.

“We hear the stories from community but the police don’t back it up and provide any information,” he explains.

Megan McGarry, the force’s SRO Coordinator, says suspending the program would be a major loss to the schools.

“It’s really upsetting because I know how incredibly proactive it is,” she said.

McGarry, who was a SRO herself for three years at 13 division, says the program allows for officers to build relationships with students.

“There is no way they’d talk to me on the streets, but in the hallway they could talk to me,” she explains. “They could come up to me and they could say, ‘hey this is going on.’”

The SRO program was implemented following the 2008 shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at a school in North York.

There are currently 37 resource officers stationed at 66 schools throughout Toronto and within the French, English, Catholic and public school boards.

According to Toronto Police, from 2015-2017 there were six complaints against SRO’s. Two were informally resolved, two others were withdrawn, one was unfounded and in another, an officer was disciplined.

Mayor John Tory, who sits on the police board, says he doesn’t want to see a hasty decision made.

“I will say, I’ve heard some concerns expressed about the officers being in the schools and how that impacts what is meant to be the byproduct and that is positive police community relations.”

A review of the program is currently underway as a third party looks at whether or not SROs are effective.

While Tory admits the program has garnered negative attention from some, he says removing it without a review would be the wrong thing to do.

“I think it would be less than responsible for people to just move now on the basis of their own feelings about it to abolish the program, before we conducted a proper review that hears from all sides.”

The review is expected to be released in August.

Erendira Wallenda hangs from helicopter by her teeth over Niagara Falls

CAROLYN THOMPSON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Thursday, Jun 15th, 2017

Erendira Wallenda hang s from helicopter by her teeth CITYNEWS
The aerialist wife of daredevil Nik Wallenda performed a series of manoeuvres — including hanging by her teeth and toes — while on a hoop suspended from a helicopter above Niagara Falls on Thursday morning.

Erendira and Nik Wallenda said they were excited to again showcase Niagara Falls on the fifth anniversary of Nik Wallenda’s televised tightrope walk over the brink.

“She’s a ballerina in the air,” Nik Wallenda said during a news conference with his wife at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Erendira Wallenda was tethered by her waist to comply with a state law that requires safety harnesses for performers more than six metres in the air, Nik Wallenda said before the stunt, adding that the cable wouldn’t have aided her performance.

“It is just as much of a challenge, in fact more of a challenge often, because you’re worried you’re going to get tangled up in it,” he said.

Like her husband, Erendira Vazquez Wallenda traces her daredevil roots back generations. There are eight generations of performers on her mother’s side who have been part of the third-oldest circus in Australia, she said, and seven generations on her father’s side, which tours in Mexico City.

The idea for Erendira’s stunt emerged as the Wallendas were discussing how to maintain their connection with Niagara Falls, where they one day hope to open a Wallenda-themed entertainment centre. Nik Wallenda thought the only way to top his own stunt was to redo it without the tether that he had objected to wearing in 2012. That seemed unlikely.

“Remember that world record that you set years ago hanging by your teeth under a helicopter about 200 feet (60 metres) above the ground?” Nik Wallenda recalled his wife saying. “Well, why don’t you allow me to do it 300 feet (91 metres) above the falls?”

“I was like, ‘Absolutely. That’s amazing. That’s awesome,’” he said.

The Niagara County legislature last month approved spending $35,000 for the act.

Wallenda hung on by his teeth 76 metres above Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., in 2011. Erendira plans to break the height record by performing 91 to 106 metres in the air.

The altitude will take the mother of three above the mist and wind of the roaring falls.

“What is against her,” Nik Wallenda said, “is that your mind — the higher you are, the harder it is to let go and hang on by your teeth.”

Erendira Wallenda said her training in the rain and mist of Florida, where they live, helped prepare her for the conditions expected on Thursday. She said her dentist made her a mouth guard that she will wear, but she will use her jaw muscles to avoid falling.

“Obviously, my dentist doesn’t want me to do this for the rest of my life,” she said.

“Our dentist is a very understanding person,” her husband added.

Five members of the Wallenda circus troupe fell from a high-wire in Sarasota, Fla., in February while practising an eight-person pyramid. Everyone survived.

Related stories:

Daredevil Nik Wallenda’s wife to dangle by her teeth over Niagara Falls

Nik Wallenda completes high wire walk over gorge near Grand Canyon

Nik Wallenda makes history with tightrope walk over Niagara Falls

Pickering man drowns at Port Colborne beach

NEWS STAFF | posted Thursday, Jun 15th, 2017

A Pickering man drowned at a Port Colborne beach on June 14, 2017. GOOGLE IMAGES
A Pickering man has drowned at a Port Colborne beach.

Niagara regional police were called to Sherkston Shores Beach Resort around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, for reports of a man in distress about 180 metres from the shore.

Other emergency services quickly arrived, including a helicopter from the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton.

The man was found dead in the water around 7:40 p.m.

Niagara police later said the 50-year-old man was alone at the time of the incident. He had gone into the water on an inflatable lounger, and was last seen by witnesses attempting to swim toward the shore.

Police have identified the man and notified his family, but are not releasing his name.

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